As one of South Florida’s most successful commercial real estate developers, Stephen Bittel has accomplished projects that have helped build the local landscape. The latest endeavor of the founder and chair of Terranova Corporation will have an even greater impact on the community — and the world. Bittel’s $1 million gift to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Movement Disorders Division in the Department of Neurology promises to accelerate research into a cure for Parkinson’s disease and improve developments in patient care.
Advancing Parkinson’s research and care is a cause that has been near and dear to the entrepreneur’s heart ever since the president of his company, Mindy McIlroy, was diagnosed in 2014. It came as a shock to them both, as she did not fit the typical patient profile.
While McIlroy processed this life-changing news, Bittel sprang into action. He called his friend John Kozyak, who was then chair of the Parkinson’s Foundation. Within days, Bittel and McIlroy were on an airplane to see one of the leading neurologists in the field.
With the diagnosis confirmed and a treatment plan in place, the two turned their attention to supporting the Parkinson’s Foundation. McIlroy started by creating a Moving Day team to raise funds, with Bittel pledging to match donations. As McIlroy’s involvement grew, she assumed leadership positions within the charity, and currently serves on its board of directors.
Independently, Bittel helped fund numerous Parkinson’s Foundation Centers of Excellence around the country and globally. To receive this designation, medical centers must meet rigorous care, clinical research, professional training, community education, and outreach criteria.
The Miller School’s Movement Disorders Division received designation as a Center of Excellence from the Parkinson’s Foundation in 2007.
Finding a Cure for Parkinson’s Disease
“Originally we were very focused on people getting diagnosed, getting them to the right doctors and getting the proper care,” said Bittel, who experienced an epiphany while attending a Center of Excellence naming ceremony in 2018. “I realized we had this all wrong. If we really wanted to make a difference, we needed to focus on finding a cure, not just supporting patient care.”
That was the catalyst that led Bittel to make his gift to the Movement Disorders Division.
“When you look at Parkinson’s disease, we are using the same three medications to treat it that we were 50 years ago. There have been some newer procedures, such as deep brain stimulation and high-intensity focused ultrasound, but all the therapeutics deal with the symptoms and not the cause,” Bittel said. “We need to fund efforts that are going to dig into what causes Parkinson’s disease and look for a cure.”
The majority of Bittel’s $1 million gift will create the Movement Disorders Clinical and Research Support Fund, which has been earmarked to support a clinical position and a research position with the hiring of a bioengineer and a patient navigator. The remainder of the gift will create the Stephen H. Bittel Fellowship in Movement Disorders. The fellowship will be awarded annually to a physician who is pursuing subspecialty training in movement disorders.
The funds will be administered by Ihtsham Haq, M.D., chief of the Movement Disorders Division. Dr. Haq says he is deeply grateful to Mr. Bittel, calling him a wonderful partner who shares the same vision.
“We are working on some groundbreaking research that I think could change the way we understand and treat Parkinson’s disease in the future,” said Dr. Haq. “Mr. Bittel has pushed us to move above and beyond to pursue ideas we might have otherwise thought impossible. His generous gift will help establish UM as the preeminent place for Parkinson’s care in South Florida.”
Bittel, who was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital and holds a law degree from the University of Miami, says he is excited by the prospect that the cause and cure for Parkinson’s disease could be discovered in his hometown.
“For years, everyone just kind of ignored the cause, managed the symptoms, and hoped that someone was going to find a cure. It’s time to stop hoping and start acting,” said Bittel. “This gift is just the beginning. We are pushing forward so that when we sit here 10 years from now, we can say that Parkinson’s was a terrible disease, we have learned what caused it, we have a solution to what causes it, and people don’t need to live with it anymore.”